Kismuth and the Way - 2019

A Westlake Story: Circling Back to Vietnam

By Dipika Kohli

I am in Hà Nôi.

March was when I was last in this city. It was a different mood completely, then, when I wrote about it here. Instead of being in the midst of going somewhere new, I feel like I'm stopping for a pause, to look back on where I've just been. (Latvia, for example. Slovakia. These kinds of places where I had no idea what to expect and now I'm back in a place where, well, I kinda do.)

Maybe that's why it's easy to pick Hà Nôi to return to. Stop. Settle into a place that feels like it might be a good one to put your stuff down for a while in. Get to know the neighborhood, stay a little while. Find the leafy views that remind you there is still nature even in this crowded, fast-paced city, and moments where you can pause. I'm far from the center, this time. It's a flat west of the Botanical Garden. Which means, local. Super. I've gotten to know my way around a little. The market where you can get dragon fruit and very pungent oranges, for example.

“It's about to get a few degrees cooler now," informs my neighbor, a woman who lives on the top floor of this shared apartment building, where it's the hottest, of course, as we run into one another in the foyer.

I unlock three locks while making small talk: “What a relief, right?" She nods, says, “It's the Mid-Autumn festival now." Had I been into town to see the celebrations?

She doesn't know this about me, but I'm averse to crowds. I say no, not really, and push the door all the way open, scoot past everyone's moto (I could never drive one in this city, I just take buses everywhere), and out the second gate. It's green and wide and the lock on this one is hefty. A girl on a bicycle goes by with a bucket in one hand, and the other way, an older couple crosses casually. It's the time of day for evening walks. No smart phones or texts or interruptions.

I like to carve out that kind of time for myself, too. Mostly, in this kind of moment, if it's not raining, I go to the same stairs right at the edge of Hô Tây, or “Westlake," as foreigners call it.

People sell cane juice every so often...

It's a ten-minute walk to the water from my building, people sell cane juice every so often, on the sidewalks here, but I just walk. All the way to my spot. Sit a while. Watch the kayaks, if they're out, just a few usually. Not too many people at the edges, these days. (Scant, this sort of simplicity in a busy metropolis, but when you discover it, it's good.)

Yesterday I walked over as the sun was setting, and stayed long enough to catch the moon's ascent. So pretty, with its reflection in slivers on the water. An easy breeze. A wild, welcome feeling of something clearing, maybe. I have time.

A longer visa. A bit of space. After this, who knows where next will be. That's part of it. I don't know. But feeling my steps helps. So do the odd spontaneous chance encounters.

They were researching stuff.

Lately I lucked into not one, or two, but three conversations with people who, like me, live in this mode: away and apart. They were researching stuff, or teaching and writing. A young woman who does all three said: “Oh, tell me more about what you do."

“Writing, mostly. Creative nonfiction, these days."

“Cool. Like about what?"

“Oh, just. Whatever intrigues, in the moment, but I like to immerse, you know? I don't wanna just fly through and say something flippant, without really noticing something, first, for myself. That takes... listening, looking, and of course, waiting. I have to grow... a new sort of patience."

“How is it going for you?"

“Well. Surprisingly well. Maybe because I am in familiar territory again, I'm in a kind of groove." Realizing it's true, I lighten. “As they used to say in Ireland, yeah, no I was just there for three years... Celtic Tiger, yeah, they'd say... Not bad. Like, for everything really good it was just, you'd go, Not bad. But yeah. I found a great viewpoint today. The feeling was one of welcome. I have been looking, for so long, and for so far, for exactly that..."

Could she relate?

She could.

The sheer fact of visas make it like that.

For both of us and many others, this kind of life is iffy. Because, as always, and soon, we will have to move on, to find our own ways. Yes, it's that, isn't it?

The sheer fact of visas make it like that, you have a time limit in each country. You go where the going takes you: that's just the way it is. Perhaps a seed you planted somewhere in the near past has finally broken ground; your journey's next leg depends on what might happen to pop up, in this way, in some other place.

Things emerge. On their own. Can't quite believe it's been seven years since I left North Carolina for “the road:" my first stop was... here. Right here, in this city. It's incredible to think about, but probably explains why I keep returning to this port, to reflect.

Nothing is defined; the ground beneath you shifts, there are no certainties, and you just have to keep going, if you choose this way. Best if you can trust the process. As you step, step, step... closer to a water's edge, like at Hô Tây, for me, or to where new people invite you to go next. Occasional conversations can develop into new worlds. Uplifting ones, too. We need that, we nomadic types. Out of darkness, a tangible and welcoming warmth. This kind of thing keeps us moving, keeps us light-filled, and looking for the next ports, wherever they go, 'cause of Kismuth, along The Way.


Dipika Kohli is the author of Kanishka, The Elopement, and Breakfast in Cambodia. See